Purity Pledges – A Policy of Ignorance

In a new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health the truth about Purity Pledges and Abstinence Only Education is revealed… They don’t work.

Of the individuals studied, a full 82% had reneged on their promise to refrain from sexual activity (this includes the full spectrum of sexual activity). Further, comdom usage by those who made purity pledges is 10% less than those who never made such a pledge. The study attributes this to, “negative views about condoms”, by those who participate in Abstinence only education.

Ever since the first report of the Purity Ball, and the increased reliance of Abstinence Only Sex Ed that has dominated the Bush Administration’s policy, I’ve had a sinking feeling about the fate of teens who are largely being used as political pawns in a game that has their future at stake. The notion that somehow telling a teenager to “Just Say No” when their body is saying just the opposite is mad, but that’s exactly what Abstinence only and these Purity Pledges are unsuccessfully trying to achieve.

To be fair, I haven’t explored the entire curriculum that is employed in Abstinence Only Sex-Ed. Different places likely have different versions of the program, but in polling my family members, nearly all of whom are current or former educators from elementary to secondary schools, they report that abstinence only education is a foul joke being played on the youth of America at the hands of those who are more interested in scoring political points, or bringing back some nostalgic religious fantasy of days gone by, than the health of the teens.

The truth of the matter is that people make better decisions when they are better informed. By giving in to the false notion that abstinence is the only way to protect against teen pregnancy we are effectively arming our teens with a hammer and calling the problem a nail, but it’s not that simple. Arming our teens with as much information as possible, from condoms to other contraception, as well as abstinence, is the best way to prevent teen pregnancy.

Short of locking them up from age 13 until they graduate, nothing is going to stop teenagers from having sex, nothing. The feelings are too complicated, and new. Emotion and “the heat of the moment” will almost always trump any rational decision-making. Abstinence only education ignores this completely, making it a “Good person/Bad person” situation. The long-term consequences of this false choice are detrimental to the individual. The message should be, “You’re not a bad person if you have sex before marriage, but you are putting yourself at risk. Here’s how to better protect yourself.”

Abstinence only presents a problem for those who subscribe to the “Family statement” from the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.” There is no doubt that teen couples are not married, but the relationship can mirror “marriage” on an emotional level that complicates the issue. By telling young women that they are to “submit” to their spouses, then telling them to “Just say no” fundamentalist Christians have created a conflict that most teens are ill-equipped to solve.

Finally, abstinence-only proponents should be required to disclose that even abstinence isn’t foolproof, unless they deny the Immaculate Conception. Seriously folks, you have to be consistent.

The truth of the matter is that we, as a people, have to stop relying on ignorance to shape attitudes and drive debate, and work to make the best information possible, available to all our people, including teens. This means not relying on abstinence as the “only way”, but also informing them of the full menu of protections against pregnancy. It has been proven we can’t stop the behavior, so it is our duty to give our teens the tools to protect themselves from the worst consequences of sexual activity. When ignorance fails…educate!

One thought

  1. I posted about Purity Balls on my blog a few months back when TLC showed their documentary about the flagship events in Colorado. I, too, saw the report that came out, as they were discussing it on CNN while I was eating a salad at Jason’s Deli. Having grown up a female in the Southern Baptist church for 18 years, I know that there are a lot of things that are broken about their notions. For example, the Southern Baptists have never been advocates of women speaking up/teaching in church, and just to make that clear, they ammended that law to make it even tougher when they met at the convention…in 2000! One thing that struck me about that report is that 95% of Americans have sex before marriage, period. Since abstinence only programs have been around for at least as long ago as I was in middle/high school–the mid-late 90s–obviously these programs aren’t working.

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